The highs and lows of soccer. Orlando City SC have experienced the full gamut of emotion over the last month. On Sunday afternoon at Exploria Stadium, it was another high.
In a must-win home game against the Columbus Crew to make the postseason, Orlando came from behind to win 2-1, with a dramatic game-winning penalty from club-record signing Facundo Torres in the 84th minute sealing the win, and with it, qualification to the Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs.
“I’m very happy, I’m very proud of the club,” head coach Oscar Pareja told media after the game. “Orlando City are on the map as a community club who want to fight for things. … The boys found a way. We’re very proud.”
Orlando have made the playoffs in three consecutive seasons, all three years Pareja has been in charge. Before his arrival, the Floridian club missed the playoffs in each of their first five MLS seasons (2015-19).
Open Cup slide
A month ago, things were great for Orlando.
They had just lifted the US Open Cup, their first-ever trophy as an MLS club, and found themselves comfortably above the Eastern Conference's playoff line despite an inconsistent season. Things were trending up, until they weren’t. Orlando lost four of their next five games, including a 4-1 thrashing at the hands of rival Inter Miami CF on Wednesday, facilitating a must-win match on the final day of the regular season to make the playoffs.
Sunday, they went into halftime down 1-0. Again faced with adversity, Orlando stepped up to the moment.
“The loss to Miami was one of the hardest moments in my era here,” Pareja said. “We didn’t have any rest after the game, but the day after in training, the boys were so bright. They forgot about it, they got us up again. … All credit to the players, I cannot take their praise. It was their willingness, the energy comes from players, I really admired it.”
Derrick Etienne Jr. gave Columbus a first-half lead before Junior Urso scored an equalizer in the 56th minute. Columbus would have advanced with a draw, so Orlando needed to find a winner. After a Video Review for a potential handball late in the game, the referee awarded Orlando a penalty for a handball on Columbus defender Milos Degenek.
Up stepped star forward Torres, who buried the spot-kick in the 84th minute.
“Today was really special,” Urso told MLSsoccer.com's David Gass on the field after the game. “When we went to the locker room, Oscar told us to think about what we’ve done this year. We were out of the playoffs, we didn’t have a choice but to try and score the goals. Everyone did a great job.”
Pareja admitted Orlando were outplayed in the first half, particularly in central midfield. At halftime they made some adjustments and Urso was encouraged to keep getting forward, which paid off with a goal.
“Junior Urso changed the game for us,” Pareja said. “His movement, his goal, it changed everything. The boys did a great job adjusting.”
Simply making the playoffs wasn’t a goal for Orlando as they aim to keep improving. The idea was for playoff qualification to have been wrapped up long ahead of Decision Day and their 2022 ambitions remain high.
“I think the fans recognize that we can win, that we’re a team fighting for things. We’re for real,” Pareja said. “We’re proud, we’re happy but we want more. We need to forget about what we’ve achieved and get ready to chase the big prize.”
Orlando, the East's No. 7 seed, are set for a Round One matchup on Oct. 16 at No. 2 CF Montréal.
“Let’s try to make some surprises for Montréal and we’ll see what we can do,” Urso said with a big grin.
“Facundo Torres carried the team”
This winter, Orlando needed an attacking rebuild. The club decided to move on from star winger Nani while rising US men's national team forward Daryl Dike was transferred to West Bromwich Albion. They identified Uruguayan winger Facundo Torres as their top target.
Torres, who turned 22 during the season, was signed for a club-record fee from Penarol. Chief soccer officer Luiz Muzzi called him one of the top three talents in all of South America. He ends his debut season in MLS with nine goals and 10 assists as his form picked up as he got settled into his new team and league.
The winger scored twice in the Open Cup final, being named Man of the Match, and then stepped up Sunday to score the goal that sent the club to the playoffs.
“For Facundo to be this young with that responsibility on his shoulders, it’s amazing,” Pareja said. “He carried the team to win the Open Cup and he carried the team today. At this age, that’s not an easy job. … I recognize his humbleness, his maturity. Orlando should be very happy to have a player like this here. He’s really carrying us.”
Torres will make his playoff debut in a week and the club will look to him to lead the lines. Despite being just 22 years old, he’ll be ready for the moment.
“Facundo is an amazing player,” Urso said. “I know he’s young but he plays like an old guy, a good mind. We’re lucky to have him.”